When he left the White House in early 2009 and headed back to Dallas, few people were sad to see George W Bush depart from highest office. Americans were aching for him to go. The 43rd president of the United States was seen by most fellow citizens as a disaster, leaving behind two unfinished wars and the deepest recession since the Great Depression. Little wonder his presidential ratings were the lowest for decades, with just 22 per cent approval.
It seemed to echo the dismal departure of his friend Tony Blair, who left office two years earlier with similarly low satisfaction ratings and heavily-stained reputation. Both are natural optimists, but saw stellar political careers overshadowed by their decision to invade Iraq in 2003. The full account of their exchanges will remain secret even if the Chilcot Inquiry is ever published, but the damage caused by their vainglorious venture can be seen daily in the bloodstained nightmare engulfing the Middle East.
Already there are books and academic articles examining the curious relationship between the goofy Texan republican president and the self-adoring British Labour leader. Even now, neither has adequately apologised for taking their countries to war on a false premise, let alone for their role in inflaming the sectarian divisions that so scar the region today or sanctioning the revolting use of rendition and torture. “One thing is certain: the Iraqi people, the United States and the world are better off without Saddam Hussein in power,” wrote Bush last year.
Many would question that analysis, although counter-factual history is a pointless exercise. Yet here is a strange thing: even as the conflagration worsens in the Middle East, there has been a resurgence of enthusiasm for Bush. His nation has a favourable view of him for the first time in more than a decade. Indeed, with approval ratings at 52 per cent, he is now more popular than the man who followed him into the White House – and bizarrely, more people blame Barack Obama than Bush for the current problems in Iraq.
The Iraq War: A timeline
The Iraq War: A timeline
1/16 11 September 2001
Terrorists belonging to al-Qaeda use hijacked aeroplanes to kill 2,996 people in attacks on the east coast of the US.
2/16 12 September 2001
Tony Blair promises George W Bush that the UK will support the US, whatever the President decides to do.
3/16 25 March 2002
Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary, warns Blair that invading Iraq would be legally dubious.
4/16 June 2002
Tony Blair asks defence officials to outline options for UK participation in military action against Iraq.
5/16 24 September 2002
The government publishes a dossier about the threat from Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. A foreword by Tony Blair states that Saddam Hussein’s “military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them”. It is subsequently alleged that this dossier was “sexed up” for political reasons.
6/16 2 October 2002
Congress authorises President Bush to use military force against Iraq.
7/16 8 November 2002
UN Security Council passes resolution 1441, insisting that weapons inspectors be allowed back into Iraq and calling on the regime to give up its WMD or face the consequences.
8/16 18 July 2003
David Kelly, an expert in biological warfare, is found dead after being named as the source of quotations used by the BBC’s Andrew Gilligan to suggest that the dossier of September 2002 had been “sexed up”. Lord Hutton is appointed to chair a judicial inquiry into his death.
9/16 13 December 2003
Saddam Hussein is captured near Tikrit, after nine months in hiding.
10/16 2 March 2004
Bombings in Baghdad and Karbala kill nearly 200 people: the worst attacks since the fall of Saddam.
11/16 14 September 2005
Bombs in Baghdad kill 160 people and injure more than 500.
12/16 30 December 2005
Saddam Hussein is executed.
13/16 28 May 2009
The last British combat troops leave Iraq.
14/16 24 November 2009
The Chilcot inquiry holds its first public hearing.
15/16 2 February 2011
The Chilcot inquiry holds its final public hearing.
16/16 21 January 2015
Sir John Chilcot confirms that his report will not be published before the general election in May 2015.
What is the cause of this re-evaluation? Perhaps it can be partly explained by America’s respectful attitudes towards the head of state, but some of it must be down also to the former president’s dignified behaviour in retirement. Studiously avoiding public criticism of his successor, let alone showing any desire to re-enter political fray, Bush has spent time building his library in Dallas, painting portraits of world leaders and working with minimal publicity on women’s health issues in Africa. Since leaving office, his art has excited most interest.
He hit the highly-paid speech circuit, of course, but there also seems to be a sense of atonement in his work with military veterans. The George W Bush Institute, a think tank set up in November 2009, focused on finding jobs for troops returning to civilian life and on destigmatising post-traumatic stress disorder which afflicts almost one-third of Americans leaving the armed forces. The former president also plays in golf tournaments with wounded soldiers, hosts an annual three-day mountain bike event with them and privately consoled victims of a mass shooting at a military base near his ranch.
Bush was always smarter and more compassionate than critics suggested. But for all his tragic flaws in office, what a contrast this character now presents to his warmongering buddy. Yes, Tony Blair gave big profits from his biography to the British Legion, but there have been no signs of him spending post-retirement time with any of the men or women wounded in his wars. Instead Blair has focused on building up his fortune, often in the most questionable manner imaginable advising feudal monarchs and repressive despots, while desperately striving to remain a global political player.
But then Blair was always colder and less altruistic than friends suggested. He sought to follow the path trodden by his political model Bill Clinton with a mixture of charitable, commercial and diplomatic roles. But as shown by his failure to extract £330,000 for succeeding his mentor as key speaker at a world hunger forum in Stockholm, he does not have the same pulling power as the ex-President. Amid concerns over his web of conflicting interests and a seemingly relentless focus on self-enrichment, he has now also lost his Middle East peace envoy post.
The long shadow of the Iraq misadventure ensures both Blair and Bush remain highly toxic figures for their parties. When Blair donated money to Labour’s target seats in the general election, several candidates snubbed his offer. Meanwhile Republican presidential candidates have been busily disowning the decision to invade Iraq; even Jeb Bush, cursed by his brother’s legacy, had to confess he would not have invaded the country in hindsight.
This unlikely pair of politicians will forever be entwined and defined by events in Iraq – rightly so, given the terrible consequences of their decisions. Yet while Blair seems an increasingly pathetic figure, loathed in his own land and desperately struggling to prove his worth, Bush seems to have accepted his role – and in so doing, to have been partially redeemed by his country as he paints his folksy portraits down in Texas. Perhaps Blair should have stuck to his guitar after all.
Twitter: @IanBirrellReuse content